Thaw in the Antarctic
Alexey Muratov

1. Two Ships

Two Ships The first chapter of Melville’s Moby Dick starts with the assertion of the psychotherapeutic power of the sea journey, ‘Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntary pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet, and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.’1

That the call of the sea has lost none of its strength now, 170 years since the American writer published his novel, is borne out by one, albeit so far imaginary, picture. When the damp, drizzly November, which drove Melville’s hero away from home, sets in over Europe summer comes to the Antarctic. Coastal temperatures go up above zero Centigrade, the sun shines, the air becomes transparent, and glaciers begin to melt. It is then that two vessels approach the Graham Land on the northeastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula where Ukraine has its Academician Vernadsky polar station, and cast anchor a few hundred metres from the shore. One of them, a snow-white ship looking like a spoon in outline, is carrying an oblong box. Its purpose becomes clear when the ship makes a spectacular acrobatic stunt: upon reaching its destination, it goes upright, becoming a vertical structure, with the spoon-like prow sinking underwater. The project gains stability as the centre of gravity moves inwards. The prow superstructure, too, is oriented perpendicular to the horizon. Its upper section, girdled with terraces, is a hotel, the middle holds mooring devices and a bathyscaph station, and underwater is the exhibition module. To get there, visitors have to take the bathyscaph. It is the Art Museum, where primarily contemporary artworks will be on show throughout the Antarctic summer.

The other vessel, or to be more precise, a floating device (that can be self-propelled or towed) is in fact a metal caisson platform with three built-in cubes marking three exhibition halls in the hold section – floodlit space intended for the exposition of both large-size installations and small pictures, drawings and photographs. The demarcation cubes are capable of free vertical movement, now submerging deep inside the exhibition halls and thus flattening the floating device, now popping up to the surface and imparting a cogged silhouette to the project. The cubes have their surface covered with a metal grid and are equipped with water pumps and steam and ice generators. As a result, the outer walls are a sort of display for three physical states of water: liquid when water is streaming along concrete, solid when ice reinforced by the grid coats the cubes, and gaseous when the reinforcement gets heated and steam envelopes the structure. This floating device is called the Personal Art Museum and has been designed for just one artist – Alexander Ponomarev, who, as a matter of fact, has initiated the entire project.

Sea journeys and the water elements are in general the centre of unflagging interest for Ponomarev, a descendent of the Zaporozhye Cossacks who was born in Dnepropetrovsk, graduated from the Odessa nautical school, lives in Moscow and keeps surfacing, both literally and figuratively, in different parts of the globe. One has only to recollect the brightly-coloured submarines surfacing in sundry places: in the Tuileries fountain opposite the Louvre, in the Loire, in the Grand Canal or the Moscow River! By observing the water elements from different points of view, now as a plein-air draughtsman, now soaring above the abyss as a rostrum, now going down to the very bottom and discovering a submarine cemetery, and now, as it were, flying up to get a bird’s eye view of the colossal banner ‘My Black Sea’, Ponomarev carries on the marine painters’ traditions by contemporary, at times ingenious and high-tech means, and demonstrates the perception of the world as a material for creativity to be mastered to one extent or another – the hallmark of avant-garde artists. Such mastering strategies employed by Ponomarev range from enclosing rippling and foaming water into huge glass tubes to altering the Barents Sea geography when a smokescreen temporarily wipes the Sedlovaty Island off the face of the Earth. Like a true lord of the sea, Ponomarev has his own fleet to suit any occasion. We have already mentioned the submarines, and there also are small amphibious robots the size of a suitcase for ‘intimate’ exhibition purposes. Ponomarev calls them submobiles and designs them, as it were, to prove that any object, no matter how strange in appearance, can be navigable.

In the recent period Ponomarev has increasingly focussed on the Antarctic. He even plans to open an Antarctic pavilion at the Venice Biennale and to serve as its permanent commissar. The Arsenal exhibit is the first step in this direction. To let Ukrainian pavilion visitors fully feel the attraction of the austere, ice-bound land at the southern extreme of our planet, Ponomarev invited the photographer Sergey Shestakov, known for his bent for taking pictures of surprising and hard-of-access places, to join him. As a sort of preview of the continent the Venice exhibit shows a 3D video masterfully made by Shestakov under the Antarctic ice. Ponomarev also documents his impressions in photos 2 and drawings. When he visited the Antarctic in the area of Ukraine’s Academician Vernadsky polar station as a research expedition member, Ponomarev observed and made drawings of mirages – extraordinary optical phenomena when icebergs, shores and other objects appear, transform and disappear on the horizon. Precisely this hallucinatory experience has prompted the idea of founding floating art museums as manmade mirages of sorts.

2. Two Cultures

Ponomarev enlisted the Moscow architect Alexey Kozyr, who had for years collaborated with Ilya Babak and was known not only for his buildings and interiors but also his interest in technical innovations3, to design ‘mirage’ architecture, or otherwise large-size submobiles. The transformable floating projects created by Kozyr’s studio in cooperation with Ponomarev can be interpreted, on the one hand, as a manifestation of the Russian landscape painting tradition, which sees the environment as something unstable and flexible4 and, on the other, as reference to products of international architectural practice that directly or indirectly address mirage imagery. Several characteristics of this type of architecture can be singled out. First, it can change either formally or visually through the use of reflecting, mobile or light construction elements. The latter case can be exemplified by a grid as used by the architect Thomas Phifer in his Salt Point House (2007), which was dubbed the ‘mirage’ in the press, or even by mist – remember the famous Blur pavilion constructed by Diller and Scofidio on Lake Neuchâtel (2002). Second, the authors obviously seek to dematerialise the architectural form and make it as ethereal as possible, again by using light or reflecting structures as, for example, the heavy steel façade of the MGM Mirage complex by Daniel Libeskind (2009), which was polished to such an extent that it looked like weightless foil. Let me note in passing that a side-effect of such etherealisation is a certain distancing of the viewer that has to do with the transfer of emphasis from possession to use of things, as Antoine Picon showed with Buckminster Fuller’s works5 as an example. This meaning of ‘mirage’ architecture is quite significant in the context of ‘Antarctic communism’, that is, the virtual absence of private property on the continent. And third and last, the architects of ‘mirage’ buildings stick to but one opposition – that of the building to the environment – when the project is in opposition to the surroundings, be it in form, context or meaning, as it were, neutralising many of the traditional oppositions, say, between linear and painterly, the skin and the skeleton, the carrier and the weightless. Thus, something incredible and unthinkable appears on a lake, in the city, on a green clearing or elsewhere. A recent example is the 130-metre-high dome of super-transparent glass that Japanese SANAA architects propose (2011) at the entrance to the Skolkovo Innovations Centre in the open field outside Moscow.

All of the above characteristics fully apply to the floating architecture of Kozyr–Ponomarev. A fleeting glance at design material is enough to understand this. Let me mention but one aspect that, I believe, can be of interest in view of the post-Soviet nature of the project, which is billed as simultaneously Ukrainian and Russian. It is the special transformation, which the Art Museum undergoes when the horizontal ship becomes the vertical of the signal structure. Such ‘tightrope walk’ – incidentally, the know-how has been borrowed from the Canadian research vessel Flip designed in the 1960s – asserts the idea of the horizontal and the vertical being reversible and mutually convertible. In a broader sense this idea can be interpreted as a reference to Vladimir Paperny, with his theory of two cultures – Culture One and Culture Two – alternating in Russian (and Soviet) space.6 Culture One is inherently centrifugal, while Culture Two is centripetal. The discovery of new places, methods and languages and, as a result, the re-discovery of Man himself is what matters for the former, while the latter aims to preserve, collect and solidify. It is a culture of covering up rather than discovering, and of binding people and values within the framework of a hierarchical system built and orchestrated from above.

Paperny exposes the nature and dynamics of these two cultures using as an example the struggle between two trends in Soviet architecture – avant-garde and Stalin Empire Style architecture. He examines the ideological and formal distinctions between the two through the prism of binary oppositions, the system which assigns a special role to the opposition of melting-hardening. In turn, the latter opposition comprises a range of secondary opposites, such as beginning-ending, movement-immobility, horizontal-vertical, uniform-hierarchical.

The vertical of the Art Museum emerging by the Antarctic coast signifies the stop, the destination point for two vessels sent by Kozyr and Ponomarev on a long journey. It refers to the by now hackneyed image of the museum as a sanctuary of a new secularized cult – the cult of art with its idea of the supreme importance of creative acts by individuals. The journey of art objects stored inside the museum ship also comes to an end both in ocean space and culture space as the structure, whose active vertical unambiguously refers to something supreme, can contain only things assigned to the ‘cultural archive’, to quote Boris Groys.7

Symptomatically, Ponomarev chooses a different imagery for his personal museum – the floating device crowned by three cubes seems to dissolve in the surroundings, that is, in the layer of Antarctic space which is full of life to the greatest extent. The mobility and changeability of the outward appearance of the structure and the neutrality of the enclosed exhibition boxes all indicate that Ponomarev’s artistic project is open and yet to be finished, and that the artist is ready to experiment.

The Antarctic is a common ground of sorts for international research. Ponomarev has joined this process, with his personal museum aspiring to become a testing site and a sort of laboratory where science is to meet art. The artist is free to experiment here bothm with the perception and behaviour of art objects in the Antarctic and virtually to put art to a test. In the context of such strength of materials studies it is on the whole clear why we speak here of Ponomarev’s personal museum: after all, it is easier and fairer to experiment with one’s own works. Thus, Culture One of the Personal Museum is in opposition to Culture Two of the Art Museum not only in form, but also programmatically.

There is an important nuance, however. The given opposition is largely fictitious as it takes place in water rather than on land. The ‘spoon’ popping up out of the sea undermines an important principle of Culture Two that has to do with its continental nature. After all, ‘the movement upward is now possible only if it grows out of the earth’.8 When it comes to the test, the new ‘temple’ proves to have no foundation. In theory it is ready to move to any part of the World Ocean – the Kozyr–Ponomarev technology enables this dominant to emerge anywhere. In the cultural sense the museum vertical becomes the horizontal.

One feels certain affinity between the work of the duo represented in the Ukrainian pavilion and Thomas Hirschhorn’s temporary architecture. The Swiss artist makes his ‘altars’ and ‘monuments’ out of seemingly unsuitable materials (cardboard and adhesive tape) and puts them up in unsuitable places: for instance, he erects his Spinoza Monument in Amsterdam’s red lanterns area and his Bataille Monument in the Turkish immigrant neighbourhood of Kassel, Germany. One can, of course, take a different attitude to such arbitrariness. One can imitate Sedlmayr and lament the ‘loss of the center’9 or rejoice at contemporary man’s ability to poeticise, that is, develop creatively almost any space. Ilya Kabakov’s Toilet installation naturally comes to mind.

3. Two States of Mind

However, I think that Hirschhorn, on the one hand, and Ponomarev with Kozyr, on the other, address different forms of mindset that can, with a large degree of conventionality, be referred to as Western and Russian. While moving his objects across the globe, the Swiss artist remains attached to a quite definite segment of contemporary European artistic culture that is simultaneously non-spectacular and loaded conceptually. Wherever he finds himself and whatever he makes, Hirschhorn continues thinking about Spinoza, Benjamin, Deleuze and Bataille, in other words, as it were, keeping to the confines of his knowledge and ideas. On the contrary, Kozyr and Ponomarev are even more radical in their defiance in terms of ‘hardware’ rather than ‘software’. In every sense these are two different project methods: the former follows the inside-out logic and the latter the other way round. The two approaches obviously differ not only in how the objects are made, but also in interaction with the environment.

In the course of contacts with the outside world, that is, with the open and the unexplored, Western man, as Peter Sloterdijk showed10, like a mountain-climber, needs some ‘base camp’. Language or culture, or else a different closed space can serve as such a camp: the German philosopher thus absolutizes autonomous and yet mobile objects, such as a ship or an orbital space station.

Europe is densely populated and highly cultured; there are many relatively small states, and it is therefore small wonder that people in the Old World are accustomed to crowded spaces and attracted to all sorts of ‘capsules’ or ‘cells’ as guarantees of spiritual and physical comfort. All sorts of subcultures and heterotopias that, as Michel Foucault demonstrates, often prove to be not only ‘other spaces’ but also places of freedom, are the different varieties of such ‘cells’. The following quotation from Foucault is eloquent testimony to the preponderance of the inner over the outer, ‘Think of the ship: it is a floating part of space, a placeless place, that lives by itself, closed in on itself and at the same time poised in the infinite ocean, and yet, from port to port, tack by tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies, looking for the most precious things hidden in their gardens. Then you will understand why it has been not only and obviously the main means of economic growth …, but at the same time the greatest reserve of imagination for our civilization from the sixteenth century down to the present day.’11

As distinct from Westerners with their many inventions to make life more pleasant, Russians and, for that matter, Ukrainians care little about comfort, as is confirmed by their living environment, be it rural, suburban or urban, and also by the homes of the poor, the middle class and even the rich. It is indicative in itself that a score of post-Perestroika years has brought no large-scale housing construction model that would be different from that of the late Soviet period. The rich for their part show predilection for huge palaces, in the rarefied space of which people should feel like a hermit in the wilderness.

The outer tends to prevail over the inner in the minds of residents of Russia and, perhaps, post-Soviet space in general. This is explained primarily by the fact that the outer is not only something outside the familiar cultural, social and administrative borders, but often the native expanses themselves. On the one hand, they are being governed by some alien power that has come from God knows where and that is accustomed to speak from strength, and on the other, they have been poorly explored, developed and settled, and even their settlement is more often than not unstable. Incidentally, this is brought to mind by the well-known photographic series of Sergey Shestakov, who pictures abandoned or dying out towns and thus creates an expressive contrast between the openness of the deserted environment and the tiny details of daily life in their poignant neglect. The East European plains are swept by strong draughts, hence the Russian tendency for utopias rather than heterotopias – for other worlds rather than other places. Now if heterotopia presupposes an interior, a closed and more or less exclusive space, a utopia presupposes the use of fish-eye optics, broad objectivizing, bird eye’s view, a belvedere and a hill. Another distinction is that heterotopia gravitates towards autonomy, while utopia is always seen in the inverse perspective, its pictures addressing not so much immediate neighbours as neighbours in cultural space.

This is also confirmed by the thoroughness with which Kozyr and Ponomarev are preparing for their journey and their indifference to all sorts of stereotypes that they borrow in case of need. Another world is precisely what it is for things to be seen through different optics there. A museum like a temple sounds banal for a Westerner. For people in post-Soviet space it is at worst monstrous heresy12, and at best a reminder that no full-fledged museum of contemporary art has emerged on their enormous subcontinent. The aesthetics of regular, grid-crossed prismatic shapes and cubes is dog-eared mainstream, ‘boutique Cistercianism’ (Deyan Sudjic) and ‘sectarian minimalism’ (Jacques Herzog) for a European. For a post-Soviet it is possibly an echo of the Thaw period, when a powerful development drive led to the conquest of outer space and the rise of industrial housing construction, and when for a short while any construction experiment became of general importance and architecture served as an instrument of resolving social problems rather than as a means of mass hypnosis. It was lapidary, modest prismatic architecture that incidentally caused lyrical feeling, such as Novella Matveyeva described in her Okrainy (Suburbs, 1961) poem, in which roofless houses sailed like ships through a warm summer night.13

Russian and, in a broader sense, post-Soviet man this emphasis somewhat differs from its Western analogue. Let it be recalled that in Heidegger fear is definite and on the social plane connected with one’s existence within a certain community, whose final boundary is established by the state and defines what is meant by the notion of ‘people’. Whereas dread is absolute and universal, being conditioned by the experience of existing in the world in general and dictated by external circumstances compared with man’s social and objective surroundings. From the European point of view coping with fear – remember Peter Sloterdijk– makes it possible to overcome dread and consequently expand one’s presence in the outside world. This coping is made possible through the comprehensive domestication of the ‘closer circle’ and the attainment of spiritual and physical comfort within the boundaries of one’s spatial unit by social, political, architectural and technical means. Among Russians fear, as a rule, prevails over Heidegger’s dread. Yet, instead of hindering people, this fear drives them somewhere. The population of one-sixth part of the globe is just as open to the experience of mobility and uncertainty as globalized Westerners. For the people of our plains the outside world has a certain positive quality.15 It actively influences one’s immediate surroundings – coping with dread will sooner or later lead to coping with fear. And it is a manifestation of the universal power of ‘big journeys’ rather than of some local specificity. Let me finish the above quotation from Foucault, ‘The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations where it is lacking, dreams dry up, adventure is replaced by espionage, and privateers by the police.’

1Herman Melville. Moby Dick, or the Whale. Vintage Books / The Library of America, 1991, p. 25
2Ponomarev exhibited many of those photos at the ‘Extra Poles’ exhibi- tion staged jointly with Sergei Shestakov at the Moscow-based Photog- gallery in the spring of 2011.
3 Kozyr holds several patents for different structures and materials, in particular, black concrete, the use of which brought fame to the AA graduate in the early 2000s.
4See, for instance, Dmitri Likhachev, ‘O russkoi peizazhnoi zhivopisi’ (On Russian Landscape Painting) in Zametki o russkom (Notes on Things Russian), Moscow, Sovetskaia Rossia Publishers, 1984, p. 19.
5Antoine Picon, ‘Fuller’s avatar: a view from the present,’ in Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe, Yale University Press, 2008.
6 Vladimir Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two. Translated by John Hill and Roann Barris. Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 13.
7See Boris Groys, O novom (On the New) in Utopia i obmen (Utopia and Exchange), Moscow, Znak Publishers, 1993, pp. 113–226.
8Vladimir Paperny, Op. cit., p. 56.
9Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis. The Lost Center, Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1958.
10See Peter Sloterdijk, Sphären I – Blasen, Mikrosphärologie, 1998; Sphären II – Globen, Makrosphärologie, 1999; SphärenIII – Schäume, Plurale Sphärologie, 2004. See also Peter Sloterdijk, Im Weltinnnenraum des Kapitals, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005; Peter Sloterdijk, ‘Spheres Theory. Talking to Myself about the Poetic of Space,’ in Harvard Design Magazine, No. 30, spring/summer 2009.
11Michel Foucault. Of Other Spaces: Utopias & Heterotopias. See Neil Leach (ed.), Rethinking Architecture. Routledge, N.Y., 1997, p. 356.
12Especially in the context of the misadventure of Pussy Riot, a Russian art group three members of which have been languishing in a Moscow detention centre since February for having staged a punk service in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
13It is noteworthy that this poem was written several months after Gagarin’s space flight.
14Martin Heidegger, Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1962. For the contemporary treatment of this theme see Paolo Virno, The Grammar of the Multitude, New York – Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004, pp. 31–35.
15This world is often seen as the world of Nature which, according to Sergei Likhachev, is associated with freedom and free will, and for this reason ‘man needs a vast Nature, open and with boundless horizons’.